I was recently introduced to a cartoon from 2014 by cartoonist, illustrator and graphic novelist Everett Patterson called “José y Maria.” It is a depiction in modern realistic style of what Joseph and Mary might look like if they lived in America today. I’ve heard lots of people talk and preach and muse about the fact that Joseph and Mary were the equivalent of modern refugees, and use that parallel to generate compassion for current refugees and other societal outcasts–Jesus was one of them, after all. But until I saw it illustrated, it never really hit home for me.
The cartoon depicts Joseph and Mary as a young Hispanic couple (hence the title “José y Maria”). They are in front of a convenience store, and the scene is covered with advertisements containing cheeky biblical Easter eggs (“Smoke Weisman Cigarettes”; “Shepherd Watches”). The neon sign of “Dave’s City Motel” in the near distance says “No Vacancy.” José is standing at a payphone, holding a phone book, pulling a coin out of his pocket–likely calling around to find accommodation for the night. Maria is by his side, cleverly seated on one of those mechanical horses for children. She looks quite young, exhausted, and very pregnant. Her hoodie proclaims she attended (or still attends?) Nazareth High School. Both are dressed in modern street clothing. They look like any contemporary young couple from the lowest socioeconomic rung. In other words, they look like someone you might very well see in your everyday travels to the grocery store, on the street, or while driving down the road. This cartoon reminds us that Joseph and Mary were real people, living in a real time and place, dealing with the typical difficulties of living in poverty.
It’s easy for us to deify Joseph and Mary so much that they cease to have any relevance to the world we live in, and Jesus’ birth narrative becomes little more than a fairy tale we teach our children. But when we closely read the narrative in Luke 2:1-15, aided by a little knowledge of 1st century Palestinian culture, we see that the situation surrounding Jesus’ birth was anything but a bedtime story.
First of all, I’m struck by the fact that this whole narrative kicks off with a census (v. 1), because it’s such a mundane detail. In the late summer and Fall of this year I had the unique experience of working for the 2020 US Census as an “enumerator”–the government-speak title for the person who goes door-to-door collecting your information if you did not return your census form. The Census Bureau tries to make it as easy and pain-free as possible for people to give them this vital information. However, in Roman times the government was certainly not concerned with the convenience of the average person. So instead of the census coming to them, they had to go to the census. Specifically, they each had to travel to their ancestral hometown (v. 3). Can you imagine if we asked that of people today?!
It was surely viewed by most people as a tedious interruption to their daily lives at best, and yet another Roman intrusion into their freedom at worst. Most Jews were unhappy, but grudgingly complied. However, a few rebelled. First century Jewish historian Josephus records that some radical Jews, fed up with kowtowing to Rome and seeking to serve only God as their ruler, joined a failed rebellion against the empire led by Judas of Galilee.
But even the law-abiding citizens must have found this requirement tiresome. After all, for many of them it meant travelling several days away, by foot, cart or animal, over extremely dusty and bumpy roads. Just think of the logistics and hassle you go through to arrange a trip across the country today–and we have cars, trains, planes, and fast-food drive throughs to make it relatively easy and quick! The amount of trouble needed to arrange and make these trips at this time would have been enough to exasperate anyone, even without the tedium and hardships of the actual travel itself–all for the privilege of being taxed.
So I can’t imagine how Joseph and especially Mary would have felt making this trip. Mary was 9 months pregnant. I’ve been 9 months pregnant more than once and I can tell you there were days I didn’t want to walk across the room, let alone travel across the country on top of a donkey! But, this kind of inconvenience is not unusual for those with little material means. Convenience and ease is reserved for the rich. I’m sure there were wealthy people in Judea at the time who managed to work the system to avoid going in person themselves, perhaps sending a servant in their place. Joseph and Mary, not being from the privileged classes, were deemed to have more time than money, and so had little choice but to make the journey.
When they arrived in Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary most likely made their way to the house of one of Joseph’s relatives. Just as poor people today generally can’t afford a hotel and opt for staying with friends or family while travelling, a several-day long stay at an inn would likely have been out of the the reach of Joseph’s finances, especially as any inns in the area would surely have been in high demand adjusted their prices upwards accordingly. It also would have been expected in this culture to stay with relatives. In fact, Joseph’s lineage–from the line of David–would have made him welcome as family in ANY house in Bethlehem, not just among his blood kin. Hospitality was and still is an extremely important social requirement in Middle Eastern cultures.
If you’re shrewd you may have already guessed that I’m setting you up here to possibly blow a hole in your Sunday School-formed ideas of where Jesus was born. Spoiler alert: it probably wasn’t in a stable or barn. There are a number of pieces of evidence for this. Aside from the fact that Joseph and Mary were probably staying at a relative’s house, not a public inn, we also have linguistic evidence. The word that in the KJV and other older versions translate as “inn” (kataluma) can also be read as “guest room” or “upper room.” Indeed, the exact same word is used in Luke 22:11, where Jesus instructs his disciples to go and rent a kataluma in which they can eat the Last Supper, only there it is translated as “guest chamber” or “upper room.” So the same meaning could certainly pertain here.
Ancient Palestinian homes were usually designed in a square, with one large open room on the main floor. At one end of the room was a raised platform on which the family would make the pallets to sleep at night. Above that, often on the roof itself, would be a guest room. This is where guests would stay or larger gatherings of people would take place. There are a number of mentions of this kind of chamber in both the Old and New Testaments (see 1 Kgs 17:19; 2 Kgs 1:2; 4:10; 23:12; Dan 6:10; Acts 1:13; 9:37-39; 20:8), and such a room is still common in the Middle East today.
At the other end of the ground floor would be a “well” of sorts, lower than the floor, in which the animals would sleep. The average Palestinian would not have had a stable for their animals; they let them roam and graze during the day and brought them into their homes at night. Therefore, there were small indentations dug in the dirt floor next to the animal well in which they would put food for the animals to eat when they were inside. These were called “mangers” (Gk, phatne; v. 7). So, instead of assuming, as we do in the Western world, that a manger would be contained in a stable, and the stock animals would be housed there, we need to come to terms with the fact that this story may just as well be telling us that Jesus was born inside an average Palestinian home.
Joseph and Mary may have arrived at the family home to find that the roof guest room was completely occupied already; they were likely not the only relatives visiting for the census. So they were then forced to bed down with the family on the main floor, also possibly with other visiting family members. The house was likely small so it was probably crowded. When Mary gave birth, then, she may have had very little privacy or space. And with so many people milling about, the safest place to put the baby to sleep was in one of the small depressions for the animal feed.
As a collector of nativity scenes from around the world, I admit that I do find this picture a little disturbing. It’s not the nice, clean, idyllic image we portray of Jesus and Mary praying over a tiny baby Jesus, neatly laid in a feeding trough, surrounded by kindly wisemen, adoring shepherds, and friendly barnyard animals. That version is much more palatable. In the traditional nativity scene there is no noise (“silent night . . . all is calm”), no dirt (even though they’re in a stable), no blood or remnants of the birthing process that has recently taken place (even though Mary likely wouldn’t have had a change of clothes with her), and there are almost no people around (even though Bethlehem in reality would have been very crowded at that moment). Everything is just the way we like it: pristine and sanitized. No need to get into the messy reality.
However, “messifying” the story of Jesus’ birth is important. It likely took place in a regular (read: poor) Jewish house–and not even his parents’ own house. Jesus was an outsider in one sense from his first breath. The birth was likely not a calm, clean experience for Mary. She may have been surrounded by dozens of noisy people, as well as bleating animals, not all of whom would have been pleased to have a laboring woman in their midst (especially if it happened in the middle of the night when everyone was trying to sleep!) The birth itself would have been messy, as all births back then were–no sterilized hospitals here, where efficient nurses whisk away any evidence of blood or afterbirth before you can even see it. No, it would have been bloody, dirty, visceral, and certainly painful.
Although it is disturbing to think about, I ultimately like this image of Jesus’ birth better. Because it means Jesus was truly enmeshed in the human experience from the moment of birth. He wasn’t born the way a king would have been, in a lavish and comfortable room in a palace where servants catered to Mary’s every need. Nor was he born in secret, in a peaceful place removed from the clutter and dirt of the world. No, he came to earth like most every child did in those days–in the midst of the mess. Dirt, blood, noise, crowds, exhaustion, chaos, frustration were all an integral part of that first nativity scene. And while we aren’t likely to memorialize it in our festive Christmas decor anytime soon, it is very important to remember. It’s only because Jesus was human like us that we can be godly like him.
 I won’t delve into the tricky issue arising from the fact that Herod and Quirinius never overlapped in their respective rules, despite what Luke says in v. 2. There is obviously some mistake here. There was a census for tax purposes under Quirinius in 6-7 CE but Herod was long dead by then. However, it makes little difference for our purposes here.
 Josephus, Jewish War, 20.5.2; Antiquities 18.1.1.
 My thinking on this subject has been informed by NT scholar Ian Paul’s article called “Jesus Really Wasn’t Born in a Stable” on his website Psephizo. https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/jesus-really-wasnt-born-in-a-stable/