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FIRST-PERSON: What happened to the Christmas story?

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (BP) — 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 the shepherds nearby.

But our modern telling of the account in Luke 2:1-20 has some shortcomings, 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.”

Bailey writes that 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 knew Mary was bearing the Son of God and 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 ingrained 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 embedded in modern Christmas tales.

The inn & the manger

Still, two questions remain: What was the “inn?” And where was the manger?

Bailey says the answers are found in the biblical account of Luke, who understood the geography and history of the Holy Land.

The “inn” in Luke 2:7 is a word that only appears in the New Testament here and in Mark’s and Luke’s account of Jesus’ Last Supper with His disciples (Mark 14:14, Luke 22:11). In both Gospel accounts, it is translated “guest room” or “guest chamber,” describing the guest room where Jesus and the disciples celebrated the Passover.

A simple village home had but two rooms; one was used 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” (or “feeding trough”) was in the lower end of the family room, and from it the animals helped themselves to food.

Taken together, it seems likely that when Joseph and Mary arrived, a hospitable family welcomed them but could not offer the guest room (“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 wrapped in strips of cloth and laid 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 to the news of the Incarnation.

The simple and wondrous story Luke tells points to a humble birth. The Holy Spirit entrusted its telling to a faithful human author who understood the culture and geography of Judea in the days that the Word became flesh.
Rob Phillips is director of communications for the Missouri Baptist Convention with responsibility for leading MBC apologetics ministry in the state. This article first appeared in The Pathway (www.mbcpathway.org), newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention. Phillips also is on the Web at www.oncedelivered.net.

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  • Rob Phillips