And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
The Nativity is an icon that appears everywhere this time of year. I've written before about some of the misconceptions people hold about Christmas traditions and many involve our picture of the Nativity. The wise men (magi) were certainly not there the night Jesus was born, for example, yet they appear regularly in nativities.
Another possible misconception is over where Jesus was born. Luke tells us that Mary laid the baby, Jesus, in a “manger.” A manger is a trough used for feeding animals. In this case, it probably was filled with straw and so would have been adequate as a make-shift bed. It's because Jesus was laid in a manger that people imagine the Nativity as having been in a barn. The wording does indeed strongly suggest Jesus was born in a place where animals were being kept.
The Bible does attest to stables being used for horses but it's not likely that Jesus was born in a stable. Western style barns were not owned by poor, 1st century, Jewish families. I have read commentaries that suggest it was common for people to use caves to house animals. There is not a shortage of caves in that area of the world and archeology has shown us that they were exploited in many ways by the people of that time. It's not unreasonable to believe that Jesus could have been born in a cave being used to shelter animals.
I think the key to understanding this passage rests on the translation of the word, “inn.” I've talked before about the dangers of reverse etymology. When we hear a word, we tend to project our modern understanding of that word onto to the original meaning of the passage. In English, the word, “inn” makes us think of a hotel. Jesus wasn't turned away because all the “hotels” in Bethlehem were booked up.
The word translated as “inn” in the King James is the Greek word, κατάλυμα (kataluma, Strong's word 2646). It is the same word later used to describe the room where Jesus had the last supper with His disciples (translated as “guestchamber” in Luke 22:11 KJV or “guest room” NASB) and is often referred to as “the upper room” in most commentaries of the Last Supper.
First century, Jewish homes were built for function. They had a small courtyard in front, an open first floor, and a second story. During the day, animals were kept in the courtyard and the family lived on the first floor where they prepared meals and ate. At night, the animals were brought into the first floor and the family would sleep in the upper area.
Here, then, is my theory:
When Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem, it would be reasonable to assume they also had their families with them. This was a census, after all, and since Joseph and Mary were both of the lineage of David, then so too were their parents, brothers and sisters, their parents' siblings, their first cousins, etc. Once they arrived at Bethlehem, they likely would have stayed with any family they had there. Because the small home was packed with people, there was not enough room for all of them to sleep in the upper area. Some of them, including Mary and Joseph, had to sleep in the lower area where the animals usually stayed at night. The animals may have been brought in but, due to the circumstances, they could have been left in the courtyard. Note that Luke's account does not mention any animals being present – it only mentions the manger.
So Jesus could quite possibly have been born in a house. A simple home, certainly – not a palace or mansion – but a home nonetheless. When Jesus was delivered, Mary laid Him in a manger, an animal trough, in the part of the home where the animals were usually kept, because there was no room for them in the guest chamber.