Christians love to hear and tell the traditional Christmas story. The birth of Jesus includes Mary and Joseph seeking shelter on a winter night, no room in the inn, a baby born in a stable, and angels visiting lowly shepherds nearby.
But our modern telling of the account in Luke 2:1-20 embraces critical flaws, according to Kenneth E. Bailey, who spent 40 years teaching the New Testament in the Middle East and who authored Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels.
According to Bailey, a careful reading of the text, along with an understanding of Jewish culture, illuminate five biblical truths that challenge our Westernized version of the Christmas story:
1. Joseph was returning to the village of his origin. Simply entering Bethlehem and telling people, “I am Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat, the son of Levi” instantly would have opened most homes to him.
2. Joseph was a “royal.” That is, he was from the family of King David. He would have been welcome anywhere in the city of David (Luke 2:4)
3. Villagers would have paid special attention to a pregnant woman. To turn away Mary would have brought unspeakable shame on Bethlehem.
4. Mary had relatives nearby. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah lived in the hill country of Judea. Even if Bethlehem rejected Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth – who knew Mary was bearing the Son of God – would have welcomed them.
5. Joseph had adequate time to make living arrangements. Luke 2:4 says that Joseph and Mary “went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea,” and verse 6 states, “while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.
Bailey comments, “This late-night-arrival-imminent-birth myth is so deeply engrained in the popular Christian mind that it is important to inquire of its origin.”
The source of this embellishment is an expanded account of Jesus’ birth by an anonymous novelist 200 years after the fact. Called The Protevangelium of James, it adds many fanciful details and exposes the author as a non-Jew who did not understand Judean geography or Jewish tradition.
Jerome, the Latin scholar, attacked the novel. Still, some of its heart-rending details stuck and became imbedded in modern Christmas tales.
Two key questions
Still, two key questions arise: What was the “inn?” And where was the manger?
Bailey says the answers to both questions are found in the authentic account of Luke, who understood the geography and history of the Holy Land.
The “inn” in Luke 2:7 uses a Greek word that means “place to stay.” It is the same word Jesus used in Luke 22:10-12 to describe the guest room where He and the disciples celebrated the Passover.
A simple village home had but two rooms; one was exclusively for guests. That room could be attached to the end of the house or be a “prophet’s chamber” on the roof. The main room was a family room where the entire family cooked, ate, and slept.
One end of the family room was either a few feet lower than the rest of the house or blocked off with heavy timbers. There, the family cow, donkey and a few sheep were brought in for the night. A “manger” was dug out of the lower end of the family room, and from it the animals helped themselves to food.
Taken together, it becomes clear that when Joseph and Mary arrived, a hospitable family welcomed them but could not offer them the “inn” because other guests were staying there. As a result, Mary and Joseph likely shared the family room with their hosts, and when Jesus was born, He was laid in clean, fresh straw in the manger.
So, what are we to do with our nativity scenes?
Luke’s account does not minimize the discomfort Mary must have felt, the efforts of Joseph to secure a place for his pregnant fiancée, or the awe-stricken response of the shepherds and wise men to the news of the Incarnation.
But we should be careful not to take liberties with the simple and wondrous story Luke tells, knowing the Holy Spirit entrusted a faithful human author who understood the culture and geography of Judea in the days that the Word became flesh.
This column first appeared Dec. 3, 2013, in The Pathway, the news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.