Monday, April 02, 2018

Seeing The Christmas Story Differently

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey
I left the book in the Ted Stevens Airport in Anchorage and had only read about a hundred pages. However, only the first chapter had fascinated, so the loss may not be great. After the discussion of the Bethlehem story, it seemed mostly about how the emphases can be different in the ME, not anything new to me. I am likely being unfair, and I may have another go at the book. The new look at the Christmas story was worth the price on its own.

We make much of the outcast, rejected nature of Jesus at his birth.  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.

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 animals 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 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.


Grim said...

If you should ever go to old Cairo, there's a Coptic cathedral there called the Cathedral of the Cave. It tracks a story of Jesus' family's flight into Egypt, where they are alleged to have stayed in a cave even as far south as Cairo.

As far as I know that version of the story never passed into the West, not as accepted doctrine. I remember discussing it with several other Christians of various denominations to see if they'd heard a story of baby Jesus' trip through Egypt, and none of us had. But the Copts take it seriously.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The family went to Egypt, but whether there were caves or other emergency shelters involved I have not heard.

james said...

Would caves be emergency shelters? Or more like campsites?

jaed said...

Perhaps influenced by the shepherds, I've always visualized a stone shelter sort of out in the hills, of the sort where you might take shelter with the sheep in a storm. (Not that it would make sense to go out of town and into the hills, I realize.)