In Luke 2.4-7 Luke tells of Joseph’s and Mary’s trip to Bethlehem for the census and Jesus’ birth while they were there. He had to go to Bethlehem, the city of David, because he was ‘of the house and family line of David’. Jesus’ was born and laid in a feeding trough because ‘there was no room for them in the inn’.
I have read this through the standard version that they got to Bethlehem a little late because Mary was pregnant, so all the space in the inns were full. But if Joseph was born there or at least had paternal links to the city, wouldn’t he have family–cousins or aunts/uncles–in the village to stay with? The BBC aired a 4-part serial called ‘The Nativity’ this Christmas, and the fourth episode explicitly dealt with this in a way I hadn’t considered before.
In ‘The Nativity’ Joseph didn’t believe Mary’s story yet, but she was in danger of being stoned for sexual impurity, so he agreed to take her south to find her safer accommodations, but he has no intention of staying with her. Along the way he has his dream but is still sceptical of it until the birth. And this takes us to our question about the lack of a guest room. They have him born in Bethlehem, and he immediately visits his cousin (I think). However, they won’t let him stay with Mary in the house because she has brought shame on Joseph and the family, and she would defile their house. Joseph won’t just let her go off by herself, so he then tries to look for room and finds none.
This interpretation is interesting because it both makes sense of what one would assume from the narrative regarding the family connections and it includes the honour/shame aspect of their culture which we might not always think about.
Matthew does not speak of Joseph and Mary in Nazareth before coming to Bethlehem. Jesus is just born there in Matt 2.1, and then the Magi come to visit him in a house (2.11). ’The Nativity’ loses its close attention to detail here, because the Magi show up in the stable just after the shepherds.
On the whole I thought ‘The Nativity’ was a good rendition of the two accounts combined in a mostly traditional fashion. Mary, Joseph, and the other characters seemed a bit more human–that is, struggling to understand and accept what was going on–than in other treatments I’ve seen. Mary was said to be 16, though she and Joseph both looked in their early 20′s. The three Magi (with their traditional ascribed names) offer too much assumed knowledge of what this birth would mean, speaking of God being made flesh and other things that assumed much more certainty than any of the other characters in the story were allowed. They also avoided Herod (who was cast as almost a rabid and crazed person), but perhaps that can be excused for the time they had for the 2hr film.