Seeing The Christmas Story Differently

Reposted from April 2018 over at my own site. I thought it might be of interest here as well

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey

We make much of the outcast, rejected nature of Jesus at his birth in our Western understanding.  No room at the inn. Shuffled off into the barn, with only a feed trough for a bed. The Eastern tradition emphasises the aloneness of Mary, and nearly always claims Jesus was born in a cave.  Bailey thinks these are both wrong. He notes that neither of these are in Scripture, they are interpreted from Scripture plus traditions. 

As a general principle, he notes that the Christmas story was written in other versions that were not accepted as scripture, and we can learn something about them – and thus about the authentic scriptures – by noting what they get wrong. The other versions often get local knowledge wrong: local geography, local customs, local architecture. When we find such things in the text we know this person has never been to Jerusalem or seen the countryside around it.  He has a false picture. This also makes it likely that the writer was not a Jew. Most Christians outside Jerusalem were not Jews. Nearly all Christians were from outside Israel from an early date.

Therefore strong Jewish or local elements in a text argue for a very early date of the original.  Later texts would not understand the information, and thus omit it, try to reconcile it with other beliefs, or just flat change it.

In Israel and farther east, there was and is a type of typical housing that was not quite the same as that just a bit farther west and throughout the Mediterranean.  Bailey notes that one can still see this style in poorer districts today.  Yet it wasn’t poor housing then, it was usual housing, and with additions, even a minor sign of prosperity. There was a rectangular building with a flat roof. At one end there would be an entrance, and immediately inside, a small lower area and a few steps up to the common living area, a single room.  The lower area was used at night to bring the animals inside. There would be 2-3 small areas, either shallow holes dug in the floor or raised mangers, for the animal’s food. The animals could see the family, the family could see the animals all night. Sometimes there might be a curtain. It’s a little warmer there. Sleeping there was no big deal. If the family got a bit more prosperous, they would build a second room on the roof. This would then be where the family slept – as in the parable of the man knocking – and used for special events, as in the Last Supper.

The word used for “inn” in the Bethlehem story is not the same word as “inn” in the Good Samaritan story, or other NT references to a paid establishment. It is the same word as the upper room. The guest room. Nice hospitable Middle-Eastern people took Joseph and Mary in, because it was and is a hospitality culture and Joseph’s lineage would have made him even more welcome. Even an average husband would have made sure of a place, not just hopped on a donkey with his pregnant wife at the last minute and hoped for the best. The guest room was full. When Mary went into labor, everyone would have known she needed whatever privacy could be managed, so they curtained off the animal’s area and put her there. Nothing shameful about it. The idea of shabby treatment came in early, as early as the 3rd C, but it was brought in by those in Greece and Asia Minor.  It’s not really in the scriptures.

He points to the behavior of the shepherds as confirming this. In a hospitality culture, anyone coming in from outside would see what you had and had not done. People would impoverish themselves rather than be seen as inhospitable. If the arrangements had been substandard, it would be doubly embarrassing for lowlifes like shepherds to be reporting it. The shepherds would have given all of their meager goods to show hospitality, and be glad of the chance. The shepherds don’t seem to find it remarkable at all. House, baby, manger, warmth. Worship and go home. The hosts must have wondered what was up with that – shepherds knocking on the door, knowing there was a newborn, talking about angels, baby is special somehow.

Also, people didn’t travel alone in those days, because it wasn’t safe.  Mary and Joseph likely went as part of a group, especially as she was pregnant. I know this makes 90% of the art we have about Christmas inaccurate, but we’ll just have to bear up under that.  The Magi would have traveled in a huge caravan, but even for short trips like the census, everyone would go together. Given that, how likely is it that Mary and Joseph suddenly have no one to do anything kind for them when she goes into labor?  When Joseph is a kinsman of the House of David…In a hospitality culture. We need to see what we already know.

So, false idea of the architecture of houses – we think of a stable as a barn with separate entrance not usually used by people for sleeping; use of “inn” as a translation term, following the tradition of our  people – farther west, later, and nonJewish; ignoring what we know about hospitality culture and typical behavior when traveling; ignoring the internal cue of the behavior of the shepherds.  We get the story wrong, because so much of our hymnody and storytelling is tied up in a particular narrative.

It is very much part of the “Jesus as refugee” story that has become so popular lately.  If people are referring to the flight into Egypt for that instead – some are – they have an argument that is slightly better, but not much.  That is another story for another day.  For now, my point is only that our Bethlehem narrative suggests poverty and rejection, because we know the rest of the story, when Jesus is actually rejected in the end.  But it’s not actually there in the beginning.  Mary had a baby while traveling, in fulfillment of the prophecy of where the Messiah was to be born.  Angels told the poor shepherds about it first, and they showed up to worship, partly to give confirmation to Mary and Joseph, who were in for a hard time.  Simeon and Anna perform a similar service of encouragement.

7 thoughts on “Seeing The Christmas Story Differently”

  1. Narrative and cultural detail out of context is always going to be interpreted the wrong way. If you want an understanding of things, you have to be immersed in the milieu, and a part of it. What gets recorded is a snapshot cross-section, not the entirety of things, which are subject to misinterpretation by anyone from outside the original context.

    Then, there’s the factor that comes into play when you find that the original writer or recorder didn’t include details you need to understand it all–They’re using a shorthand that doesn’t include all the things they think are implied, and “common knowledge”. Case in point would be the fact that we still don’t know, for sure, whether or not the Roman legions marched in step “on the march” or when doing tactical evolutions. Arguments can be made in either direction, but nobody really knows for sure, one way or another. And, to the person trying to understand what was going on, that’s actually a much more vital issue than most would think, because the whole “in step” thing informs understanding what the Romans were doing in their formations, how the battles were fought, and how their tactics actually worked.

    But, because “everyone knew” that sort of thing, it didn’t get recorded. Maurice of Nassau had to work out all that “stay in step” sort of thing for himself, from first principles. Because, it was never recorded.

    That’s the sort of thing you have to contend with, when you study history. So much of what would be necessary to fully understand everything simply isn’t there, because nobody thought it important to write down or otherwise record. We wind up teasing details of things like how triremes were rigged and run off of peripheral stuff like the decorations on Greek pottery, which is nuts. I don’t think anyone has ever actually found the wreck of something like a quinquireme, in order to figure out how the hell they did it, so we’re running on purest supposition when we try to figure it all out. Maddening, to say the least. And, that’s the merest tippy-tip of the iceberg, because that stuff is just the concrete physical sort of thing–The meat of how people interacted, what they believed, social customs and interactions? None of that is preserved. If you were to actually be able to time-travel back, you’d stick out like a sore thumb, due to all these things we take for granted, like body-language and non-verbal cues that have been forgotten, or which have shifted beyond recognition.

  2. Also, people didn’t travel alone in those days, because it wasn’t safe. Mary and Joseph likely went as part of a group, especially as she was pregnant.

    We saw this in Luke 2:41-52 when the young Jesus stayed behind in the temple. “Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends.”

  3. In keep with some comments that have been made regarding the Slaughter of the Innocents (Herod’s decree that all male babies born/living in the Bethlehem area under two years old be killed in an attempt to assassinate Jesus), I wonder what this says about our concept of the Flight into Egypt.

  4. The story of the Magi always struck me as more complicated. The Three Wise Men from the East were likely agents of the Persian Empire, the major geopolitical rival of the Roman Empire from Augustus on.

    They were sent to find and give diplomatic respects to a heir of King David, which would be Jesus. Their political goal was to stir the feelings of independence among the Jews against Roman occupation.

    King Herod, the Roman proxy ruling Israel, was infuriated once he heard and killed all the male infants to suppress and future rival.

  5. I heard a priest give a sermon once saying that the Magi were stuck in the story to say that Jews rejected the Messiah but that astrologers, who were looked down upon by Jews, were open to God’s message and could receive it, so this was just a (made up) story about how Christianity was a global message, etc.
    I think this was the same sort of “metaphorical” stuff along the lines of the infamous “the miracle of the loaves and fishes was that everyone shared their stuff” story. Post V2 theological training of priests was scandalously awful.

Comments are closed.