Questioning the Tradition

This time of year we get to reflect on the glorious message of our Savior’s birth, sent into the world to save us from our sins and to take his place as creation’s rightful King. The basic contours of the traditional Christmas story are commonly known, even among those who are not Christians. Three wise men, shepherds in mid-winter, baby Jesus in a barn with animals, and of course, that crusty old innkeeper who wouldn’t give Joseph and his laboring wife a place to stay (or in some accounts offered up his stable out of generosity!). But is the traditional story an accurate portrayal of the biblical story and is realistic given the historical and cultural setting? Kenneth Bailey, author of Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes says no, and offers a compelling argument that our understanding of the Christmas story depends more on later embellishments and tradition than on the biblical accounts themselves. He suggests 5 critical flaws in the traditional story:

  1. Joseph was returning to the village of his origin. In the Middle East, historical memories are long, and the extended family, with its connection to its village of origin, is important. In such a world a man like Joseph could have appeared in Bethlehem, and told people, “I am Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat, the son of Levi” and most homes in town would have been open to him.
  2. Joseph was from the family of King David, a family so famous in Bethlehem that the town was apparently known by locals as “the city of David.” Being of that famous family, Joseph would have been welcome anywhere in town.
  3. In every culture a woman about to give birth is given special attention. Simple rural communities the world over always assist one of their own women in childbirth regardless of the circumstances. Are we to imagine that Bethlehem was an exception? Was there no sense of honor in Bethlehem?
  4. Mary had relatives in a nearby village. A few months prior to the birth of Jesus, Mary had visited her cousin Elizabeth “in the hill country of Judea” and was welcomed by her. Bethlehem was located in the center of Judea, meaning that they would have been but a short distance from Zechariah and Elizabeth. If Joseph had failed to find shelter in Bethlehem he would naturally have turned to Zechariah and Elizabeth.
  5. Joseph had adequate time to make arrangements. Luke 2:4 says that Joseph and Mary “went up from Galilee to Judea,” and verse 6 states, “while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.” The average Christian thinks that Jesus was born the same night the holy family arrived, hence Joseph’s haste and willingness to accept any shelter, even the shelter of a stable. Traditional Christmas pageants reinforce this idea year after year.

He then proceeds to document how many of our traditional understandings actually originate with 3rd century expansion of the gospel accounts known as The Protoevangelium of James. So what about the manger and the inn?

Where was the manger?

In the Middle East, traditional village homes would often only have two rooms. One room would serve as the guest room, and the other was the main living area where the family ate, slept, and lived. Except for the homes of the wealthy, most animals would be kept inside the houses of their owners. They would be brought in at night for warmth and protection and then taken outside in the morning. In the main living room near the door, there would be an area blocked off and designated for the animals, including mangers dug into the floor where the animals could eat. This type of setup is seen in the Middle East even to the current century and is consistent with other biblical passages (such as Judges 11:29-40; Luke 13:10-17). It has been understood by Middle Eastern scholars for more than a century that Luke 2:7 is referring to a family living room with mangers cut into the floor at one end.

What about the Inn?

So, if Jesus was born in the living room of a typical middle Easter village home, how do we account for the language of an “inn” used in Luke 2:7? Bailey writes:

“There is a trap in the traditional language. ‘No room in the inn’ has taken on the meaning of ‘the inn had a number of rooms and all were occupied.’…But the Greek word does not refer to ‘a room at the inn’ but rather to ‘space’ as in ‘there is no space on my desk for my new computer.’… The Greek word in Luke 2:7 that is commonly translated ‘inn’ is katalyma. This is not the ordinary word for a commercial inn… [The word pandocheion (to receive all), as used in Luke 10:25-37, is the common Greek term for commercial inn and] was so widely known across the Middle East that over the centuries it was absorbed as a Greek loan word into Armenian, Coptic, Arabic and Turkish with the same meaning - a commercial inn… Literally, katalyma is simply ‘a place to stay’ and can refer to many types of shelters. The three that are options for this story are inn (the English translation tradition), house (the Arabic biblical tradition of more than one thousand years), and guest room (Luke’s choice). Indeed, Luke used this key term on one other occasion in his gospel, where it is defined in the text itself…[c.f. Luke 22:10-12] Here, the key word, katalyma, is defined; it is “an upper room,” which is clearly a guest room in a private home. This precise meaning makes perfect sense when applied to the birth story. In Luke 2:7 Luke tells his readers that Jesus was placed in a manger (in the family room) because in that hoome the guest room was already full.” (32)

This account is confirmed by the account of the shepherds. The lowest of the social classes were the first to be informed of the Savior’s birth. They were told that the King of the Jews would be found wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. In other words, he was in lowly conditions just like theirs, in a typical peasant village home. Bailey poses an interesting question - if the Shepherds had encountered Mary and Joseph in a filthy stable, desperate and scared, would they have left “praising God for all they had heard and seen” or would they more likely have taken them and moved them into their own homes? Later, when the wise men arrived, Matthew reports that they “entered the house” which is consistent with a birth in a private home.