Sunday, December 13, 2020

Christmas Mythbusters - Seeing The Bethlehem Story Differently

Reposted from April 2018 and again in December 2019

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 (πανδοχεῖον pandocheion), or other NT references to a paid establishment. It is the same word as the upper room. (kataluma, katalyma Luke 22:11)  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. (Update in 2020: A good rule in all times.  There has been a ramping up of people seeing prophecy and demonic struggle in specifically American events this year. It could be.  Yet we have to first remember what we know about Jesus, and prophecy, and demonic struggle before we too rapidly apply them to the events of our own day.  Church history would suggest that these are much more often the result of our feeling that something is wrong in the world and leaping to conclusions.)

So, a 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 story 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.


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.)

james said...

And, of course, when they went to Egypt they weren't poor anymore. Though, until they got out of Herod's reach, hiding was probably wise.

Tom Bridgeland said...

Were they ever poor?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Good question. Tradition says that Joseph was older, and he is not recorded as being recently around when Jesus is an adult. Mary can't have been well-off after he died. What age Jesus was then we have no clue, other than being older than twelve.

Texan99 said...

Everyone was poor by our standards, the few exceptions being the few seriously rich poobahs. I take the story of the manger as a contrast with the traditional idea of the Messiah, which more or less assumed a birth in a palace--not that a birth in a palace in that time wouldn't strike most of us today as pretty primitive.

The modern spin on poverty is different from the Biblical spin. We have Biblical stories about poor old women with one mouthful of food left, who expect to starve to death quite soon, but who instead share their bit with a passing stranger, because as you say the hospitality tradition was quite beyond anything we can easily imagine today, when we rarely encounter anyone in such dire straits. We have Biblical injunctions to allow the poor to glean the fields after we've harvested the bulk of the crop, and to take care of widows and orphans who won't just have trouble paying for college tuition but are in danger of starving to death. Everyone else was just poor in the general sense that has applied to nearly everyone on Earth until a very few years ago. There were a few fabulously rich people, while everyone else made do, with the help of strong family ties and rich cultural customs.

Today any mention of poverty becomes a morality tale told at the expense of whatever political enemies we'd like to accuse of greed and heartlessness. The idea that some people in a story were poor (by our standards), but nevertheless important and admired, becomes a rebuke to those fat cats who run the modern world and could pay for my healthcare and my children's graduate school if they weren't so mean. In its time, though, it was a story about people of fairly average means among other people of fairly average means, the most important point being that they weren't the royal family in a palace. People willingly took care of occasional travelers, guests, and victims of calamity who fell in their path, but didn't consider themselves obligated to guarantee the basic necessities of room and board for everyone in the county on a lifetime basis. They expected most people to hustle up a living and make themselves generally useful.

oldcorps76 said...

Interesting, lot of assumptions here, like "traveling in a caravan" which "is not in the Scriptures." I'll have to check his use of the Greek with Strong's to see if he is cherry-picking like so many others, to make his case.

The Gospel story was written as it was to make a point. Double-twisting it around to counter the twisting of the story by some, turning it into a "Jesus was a meegrant, so open your borders, filthy nationalist" narrative is not right either. And a manger - glossed over by the author - is still a trough from which drooling ruminants eat their hay, and not a comfly nor proper middle-class emplacement for any newborn, much less the King of Kings.

Which again, was the point.